Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies seek continental glory after unbeaten season

Mamelodi Sundowns won the inaugural SAFA Women's Soccer League season (albeit a COVID-affected one) without losing a game, and their next goal is to do well in the first-ever CAF Champions League for women, in 2021. Mamelodi Sundowns FC

At the inaugural CAF Women's Champions League, set for 2021, South African champions Mamelodi Sundowns will be out to emulate their men's team's sustained continental success.

Simultaneously, they will seek to break new ground and put South African women's club football on the map, especially after enjoying an unbeaten [coronavirus-truncated] season in the inaugural SAFA Women's Soccer League.

In the first season of the semi-professional SNWL, coach Jerry Tshabalala's side breezed to victory with 21 wins from as many matches, scoring 82 goals. The only other team in the SNWL with a corresponding men's Premier Soccer League (PSL) side was Bloemfontein Celtic.

When Orlando Pirates became the first South African club to win the men's Champions League (then African Cup of Champions Clubs) in 1995, they changed the fabric of the competition. It had traditionally been dominated by North African clubs, and a clear statement had been made that South African teams would be no pushovers.

Sundowns' men emulated Pirates' success in 2016, becoming the only other South African outfit with a star above their crest and earning respect in all corners of the continent. However, their women's side arguably has even more to play for.

"It [Sundowns Ladies succeeding in the Champions League] will be a wake-up call to a lot of teams and even the younger girls who want to see themselves playing football professionally, you know. We're going to go out and see to it that we recruit those who didn't believe in this sport and [make them] start," Tshabalala told ESPN.

Generally speaking, South African men's football is dominated by three gargantuan clubs -- Sundowns, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. Of these, only Sundowns has a women's team.

Calls are mounting for South African men's football clubs to create women's teams and for the SNWL to professionalise. A strong showing on the continent from Sundowns women would likely strengthen the case for both.

Sundowns men have been South Africa's top team since head coach Pitso Mosimane arrived in 2012. That same year, Tshabalala took charge of the women's team, and he has not looked back since.

The women won the Sasol National League Championship (the SNWL's predecessor) in 2013 and 2015. Tshabalala has continued to strengthen the squad with astute recruitment.

The SNWL title-winning team included international stalwarts such as goalkeeper Andile Dlamini and striker Rhoda Mulaudzi, but in the meantime, the coach has not shied away from polishing young talent.

The blending of experience and youthful exuberance is a policy which echoes Mosimane's methods. However, the stakes are different to the men's game, in which millionaires are made on the football fields of South Africa.

"It's going to be almost impossible [to play in all the matches], as inter-continental competitions require a lot of traveling. We've seen how busy the [men's] first team's schedule is with the league and CAF [Champions League], so chances are that I might miss a lot of games," says Sundowns' Chuene Morifi, a seasoned utility player with international experience and a software developer by trade.

"We have a few players with day jobs. We don't get paid to play football in South Africa, so we have to find work," she adds.

Sundowns have set themselves apart by offering their women's players semi-professional contracts, but Morifi still views her job at a tech company in Johannesburg as necessary for covering basic expenses.

Morifi's answer is less optimistic than her coach's when asked about the possibility of a positive Champions League campaign inspiring young girls across South Africa, and accelerating the creation of women's teams among rival clubs.

"Yes, definitely, but there is still a lot of work to do in terms of improving the state of women's football in South Africa... Our national league needs to be professionalised," she says.

"Clubs shouldn't be forced to create women's teams within their structures. They should do it [by] their own will -- otherwise, we will have clubs having women's teams, but those teams will be treated as poor cousins."

The circumstances under which South African women's football teams operate make it nigh impossible to hold onto the likes of Mulaudzi. The striker recently joined Dinamo Minsk after scoring 36 SNWL goals en route to the title, having only joined Sundowns five games into the season.

"Losing Rhoda is a major setback for the team. She came back to the team and did very well and helped the team to win the league," says Morifi.

"But we have a lot of talent in the team and I think this will be an opportunity for others to now show up and help the team achieve the objectives going forward. We should be fine."

Whether or not Morifi genuinely believes they will be 'fine' is difficult to tell, and replacing the star striker poses a challenge to Tshabalala. Fortunately for Sundowns, one power he possesses in abundance is infectious confidence.

"It takes self-belief from the coach himself to instil belief in the players," he says. "When I first took over at Mamelodi Sundowns, I had an interview... I said I wanted to make Mamelodi Sundowns one of the best teams in South Africa.

"At the time, yes, Mamelodi Sundowns was there, but it was not that [well] recognised. The big teams in South Africa were your Detroit Ladies and Palace Super Falcons."

As he prepares to take Sundowns even further into uncharted territory, Tshabalala is approaching the challenge with the same mindset as before. He is uncertain who he can expect to come up against in the now-uncertain Champions League and has little in the way of opposition research tools at his disposal. Nevertheless, he remains unperturbed.

"Surely, it will be based more on online research and believing in my team's ability. I'm one person who really doesn't like to read too much into opposition. What I believe in is what I have at my disposal," Tshabalala says when asked how he will conduct opposition research without the privilege of analysts capable of flying across the continent.

"A lot of teams study Barcelona, but whenever they play against Barcelona, they still get a hiding. Surely, if we believe in what we have and utilise it in the correct manner, I don't see any team stopping us," he said.

In reference to rivals Orlando Pirates' reluctance to publicly admit their title ambitions, Mosimane famously said that "if you want to win the league, you must say it". Tshabalala, it seems, is of a similar school of thought.

"I'm one coach that is more of a boxer. When you go into the ring, you're not just going there to test waters. I always tell my players that any competition that we play, whether new to us or old, we need to go out there and win that competition," he says.

"I believe we stand a good chance of winning that competition [the Champions League]. The more you talk about it -- the more you put it in your minds -- the more it will happen."

Many obstacles, notably coronavirus disruptions, lie ahead on the road to going down in history as the first women's CAF Champions League winners. Regardless of the outcome, it appears that Sundowns will not go down without a fight.